Author Archives: Isobel Smith

Stereoptik - Dark Circus - Photo by JM Besenval

Stereoptik: Dark Circus

Stereoptik - Dark Circus - Photo by JM BesenvalIt’s a minimalist scene on entering: an empty stage, with a large projection screen at the back and projector centre stage. To the left a sound desk, anglepoise lamp, and a couple of guitars. Opposite, on the far right of the stage, is the animation table, a camera on a rostrum, paper and art materials meticulously laid out, and a couple more lamps. All black and white functionality.

The performers enter and at once the music and images begin to appear. We are immersed in the drawn world of the Dark Circus.

At the sound desk is Jean-Baptiste Maillet and stationed at the animation table is Romain Bermond, though the division of labour isn’t quite so clear cut as this image suggests. Maillet’s drum takes on the role of the circus ring, and Jean-Baptiste’s guitar not only delivers the soundtrack for the lion tamer but its beautifully painted neck ‘becomes’ him, and the soundhole the lion’s cage.

An inky brush line begins to appear on the screen. I can see Romain drawing it live on the animation table. I experience slight vertigo seeing the image appear on the screen without the artist’s hand or brush being visible – something to ask about at the end of the show discussion.* The magical black line describes big top, caravan, box office, trees and paths, the city’s skyscrapers, and the road carrying the audience to the see the show.

Hand-cut paper cars and figures on sticks make the Circus Cavalcade. As the background is wound furiously along by Romain’s other hand, the clusters of figures he holds still in front of the camera begin to walk along streets and paths towards the circus. Soon we are arriving at the Big Top. A fantastic sandy transition takes us smoothly inside, where the circus ring and eager audience awaits.

I’m relieved to see Romain’s hands, silhouetted black on the big screen like a pair of puppeteer’s gloves as they move the sand on the overhead projector.

Jean-Baptiste and Romain seamlessly pull focus from one camera to another, mixing high-tech with low, scene by scene, with perfect synchronisation and precision. We can see the action on the screen and are also party to the speedy scene changes and set-ups by one as the other literally draws the audience’s attention his way. It is thrilling to watch the action on the screen and associate it with the strange and precise choreography of the live performers.

The circus performers are introduced in turn, each with their own soundtrack and different style or technique to bring them to life on the stage, each more thrilling than the last. My favourite ‘gasp out loud’ moment was when a beautifully-rendered circus pony suddenly found animated life of its own and made a bolt for freedom, no longer fettered by the artist’s hand it bucked and kicked and galloped around the page, while the artist frantically drew its changing scenery and attempted to draw a fence to keep it in. It’s a moment of alchemy and joy and nicely recalls Eadweard Muybridges’s pioneering stop-motion photographs of running horses and pre-animation techniques.

‘Come for the show, stay for the woe’, the Ringmaster cries, but for me perhaps the woe could have been a bit more miserable: I like my Dark Circus DARK. Dark Circus is a sweet story, even the tragically ‘sticky’ ends of the circus characters are delivered with gentle humour and all are redeemed in the end.

The production was witty, stylish, and fabulously inventive, delivered with dexterous sleight of hand by Stereoptic after what must have been hours, weeks, years of creative play and practice. They promised us that we would see how it’s done, and we can certainly see them doing it but their fluent use of technology and smooth segues between scenes and techniques left the magicians’ sleeves unexamined and their magic intact.


*The artist’s brush and hand wasn’t visible in the opening scene because it was filmed from the underside of the paper.

Stitch It - Photo by Martina Bellotto

Inbal Nelly Lewis [Fichman]: Stitch It!

Stitch It - Photo by Martina BellottoOut of the darkened stage emerges the frozen static image of a classical ballerina. There is just enough light to make her out, enough dark to keep the image obscure – a glimpse of a young woman and the promise of a dance. It’s a tantalising opener and all the more evocative for its hard to see quality, beautiful, it could have held for longer.

There is a triple-decked wooden sewing box suspended by fishing wire to her right, and the lights go up to reveal Inbal Nelly Lewis’s enigmatic face, painted white like a porcelain doll, or a clown, or a waif-like vulnerable little girl. Lewis is all these things and more as she takes us flawlessly through her solo performance Stitch It! She has been working on her unique visual language ‘Butomima’ since 2004, when she graduated from the European Academy for Pantomime and Dance, it combines Pantomime, corporeal mime, and butoh dance and it is a joy to watch.

Our journey of exploration begins with the sewing box and thread, Lewis sticks pins in her breast, spits up tape-measure guts, and sews a red button onto her apron, breathing in life and darkness as she winds imaginary bobbins, and tangles with red cotton thread. We see blood and rivers, gagged words and cutting scars as she plays out to the audience. The imagery is powerful and moving, sometimes straightforward and clear, other times it is more complex and obscure. We are taken on a woman’s journey from childhood to childbirth, ageing, and death. It is a visual poem triggering memories and emotions, thoughts and dreams as it unfolds before our eyes.

Stitch It! does quite literally unfold, by means of the contents of the sewing box and by Lewis’s amazing skirt, an object of seemingly endless transformations; it is a feat of fabric engineering by Yasmin Wollek, exploited to maximum artistic effect by our talented performer. She blurs the definitions of costume, prop, and character, using her body to explore creative challenges and solutions through movement and mime.

Sticking white buttons to her eyelids and a red one to her nose renders Lewis blind, funny and grotesque. She is laughing and then crying, sometimes both simultaneously, funny and horrific at once: it twists up your feelings, the effect is poignant. Baby is growing up.

Buttons are pebbles on the beach and cleverly the sewing box becomes a ship on a stormy sea. A red cord is pulled and the skirt transforms, revealing elastic loops along the hem, coincidently the wind catches the side the of the theatre tent revealing similar loops along its edges. The Warren marquee couldn’t be a more perfect venue for Stitch It!, the flapping canvas, loops, zips and sewn aesthetic complimenting and enhancing the particular minimalist design of the show, under the keen eye of Artistic Director Yael Erlich Morag.

Lewis breaks the fourth wall to enlist an audience member’s help to keep the sewing box boat rocking, this seems a bit incongruous, it happens only once in the show and I wonder if it’s necessary, it temporarily broke the magic for me, bringing me back into my theatre seat with a bump.

It is very powerful and sometimes harrowing to watch a life lived out in Lewis’s performance, we see her joys and sufferings, learnings and yearnings, and then a bent old woman in a cloak, becoming a crone-bird, sea bird, angel perhaps. There is some faffing with the sewing box at the very end which took something from the otherwise virtuoso performance by Inbal Nelly Fichman-Lewis.

Stitch It! was a a compelling watch, Lewis has devised a feast for the eyes, it could benefit from a specially composed musical soundtrack made with the same level of skill and attention to detail. Perhaps someone could fund that? She richly deserves it.

Wildheart & Lyric: Wolf Meat

Wildheart & Lyric: Wolf Meat

Wolf Meat is a trouser-ripping side-splitting romp through Grandma Croydon’s twisted world of sex and drugs, pinching inspiration from fairy tales like Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, and cutting them with cop dramas and enough nods and winks, theatrical asides, thigh-wobble-claps, and other shocking surprises to take the legs out from beneath a less accomplished theatrical beast.

The company, under the direction of Complicite’s Mick Barnfather, have trained and worked together in the world of Clown, Bouffon and Commedia Del Arte, and they are well ‘up for’ and ‘up to’ the theatrical gymnastics that the show demands. Wolf Meat takes a few minutes to warm up, and then ramps up to deliver a thrilling roller-coaster of drama, horror and delight, keeping us in suspense (and – sorry –suspenders).

As we enter the theatre, Grandma is already seated in the audience, making a palaver out of a trip to the loo. Promising us not only a show, but a theatrical masterclass too, she negotiates her zimmer frame and herself up the high step onto the stage, treating the audience to an eyeful of rump twerking as she goes.

This irreverent, manipulative old woman (played by Mella Faye Punchard) has a very naughty twinkle in her eye – a twinkle that she acts upon whenever she gets the chance, ‘Give old granny a kiss!’ she demands of grandson Wolfy (Oliver Harrison) before deftly spinning her head round and slipping out her tongue as an apprehensive Wolfy approaches her with caution. This sets the tone of the piece and the cast take every opportunity to be be rude, twisted, debauched and depraved as they set about their mission to shock and stir their audiences with ridiculous humour and theatrical anarchy.

Grandma’s husband Derek (musician Alex Stanford), largely ignored, is seated at a chemistry bench amidst clouds of smoke, making drugs and delivering the music which underlines the show. Petunia Berg (Katie Grace Cooper) enters the scene – supposedly an old relative with no one to inherit her 4.3 million pounds – and enquires about the nature of Grandma Croydon’s family business. She is waited on by Luna, (Carla Espinoza) a bruised and medicated Cinderella. ‘You look like a user’ declares Wolfy, dealer for the Croydon empire, as he climbs off the stage towards an unsuspecting audience member. ‘Lick your finger – you first’ he says as the audience member tastes the goods, and the cast sing their Class A song.

With the others out of the room Luna discovers Petunia’s truth, she is undercover cop Dawn Taylor: ’MI5, MI6 M25 A12 Junction 17’, and she’s out to get Grandma! ‘That was the dramatic part I told you about’, says Grandma Croydon following a particularly harrowing scene where increasingly troublesome Luna is held down, forcibly drugged and dragged off to her room. The audience is silent, shocked. ‘All part of the masterclass.’ says Grandma.

The plot gallops along, twisting and turning and gathering pace, the audience gasps (no really!) and all too soon it’s over. Leaving the theatre I hear an audience member ask her mate for a verdict, ‘Wild’, she said, ’10 out of 10’. I totally agree. The performers delivered fantastic 3D characters in a slapstick driven, over-the-top world. Silly, playful, intoxicating, and strangely moving.

The Ice Cream Van Hunger

The Ice Cream Van: Hunger

The Ice Cream Van’s Hunger thrilled from the very beginning.

The curtains open to a monster mash of performers piled high, and tangled up to resemble Alex Scheffler’s illustration of the Horrible Beast in Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom. Hunger’s four-headed beast turn round slowly and spectacularly to reveal a bloody mass of fabulously dark characters feeding lasciviously on one another in a greedy passion. Slowly the orgy separates out into four filthy, knobbly and disfigured individuals, business-suited, jaws juicy with blood, they climb clumsily off the stage with the sole intention of feeding off the audience.

‘Drip, drip from the sharpest prick… would you let us?’

The audience squeal with horrified delight, and we are plunged headlong into the dark world of Frankie Bank. Luckily there’s a shout that lunch time is over, and the four make their way back onto the stage and back to work. A nonsense commute follows, each taking a turn (or two, or three) to descend the imaginary stairs, via escalator, skis, canoe, diving, and falling behind their minimalist waist-high screen and into the Bank. They belong together, playfully impressing, competing and surpassing each other.

At 8am the Blood Market is open on Vein Street and our bankers set about their beautifully choreographed work, creating essences of intricate trader’s deals and bringing to life the vast Blood Market floor on and beyond the tiny Marlborough stage.

We are told how Frankie Bank came about, starting with Adam and Eve –neither being quite ‘Arthur’ or ‘Martha’ – attempting sex by means of a game of scissor / stone / paper, played out by hands through slits as expressive genitalia between each of their legs. The ensuing sequence of ridiculously filthy and innocent couplings eventually does bear fruit. The founder of Frankie Bank is born amid bats, bunting and loud choral music.

Meanwhile Johnny – a puppet cut roughly from a cereal packet and taped to a lolly-stick – has become separated from his Mother on the underground: ‘MUMMY!’ he shouts as he is wiggled about on top of the white screen. ‘Crumbs!’ he declares, ‘I’m all alone in London City’. But alas he is not! Dark eyes follow him from behind billboards and soon enough the Frankie Bankers have him surrounded, promising ‘all the toys later for just one globule of blood now’. They escort Johnny to the Bank and he is ‘deposited’ effectively in shadows, into the Frankie Blood Blank. The cast provide tension with their Jaws-like sound effects. Johnny is no more, and the terrible truth of Frankie Bank is exposed…

Not that the story is all that important in this show. It’s understood and felt that the blood-sucking bankers will lie and cheat and take everyone – themselves included – down, and they do.

The performers – a Lecoq trained theatre quartet, comprised of Sylvain Chevet, Jack Kelly, Loukia Pierides and Mitchel Rose – feed off each other’s creativity to exhilarating, hilarious and thought-provoking effect. It’s the physicality of the performance, the integrity and commitment of the ensemble, that drives us to the edges of our seats, to remain there transfixed until the final curtain. It is testament to Ice Cream Van’s skill that taking a (beautifully) crappy aesthetic, with a minimal set and props, they create this decadent world of excessive consumption.

The silliness is tight and lean and dark: Hunger takes a Rocky Horror Show mash-up with real bodily fluids, adds a lick of Tiger Lillies, and some Forkbeard Fantasy whiskers, to create a wonky world very much their own, with all the makings of a cult classic.

A bloody great show.


Burn the Curtain The Company of Wolves: Photo by Theo Moye

Burn the Curtain: The Company of Wolves

Hungry for adventure, it was a relief to leave the bright efficiency of the box office tent, and side-step into the dusky Stanmer village church yard where dark figures had been lurking and another reality within the familiar setting of Stanmer Park (a country park just outside of Brighton) awaited.

The Company of Wolves, Shiona Morton’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s stories, promised a spine-tingling outdoor experience and warned that if we strayed from the path for one instant, the wolves would eat us.

We had been divided into runners – the fleet of foot ‘Hunters’, and walkers – the eagle-eyed ‘Gatherers’, and Burn the Curtain’s promenade theatre adventure had begun.

The Gatherers were smoothly ushered by Nun/Guides to join the Bride’s portion of the congregation; Hunters the Groom’s. Pete the Preacher greeted us and after a warm up ‘Hymn’ it became clear that the Bride-to-be was not coming. Enter the wild-eyed Duke, (Richard Feltham) in Gothic attire to announce darkly that the Wolf had taken her, there was no time to lose. And so it was with some trepidation and delicious anticipation that I set off – To The Woods!

The two groups divided and were taken on separate routes, Gatherers to find the Bride, Hunters to kill the Wolf, each having their own unique experience and collecting clues to share later. I was amongst the walking gatherers. We headed out at a steady pace before catching sight of Ruby, a Red Riding Hood figure dashing along along the sun set horizon, cape flying behind her – an archetypical image, powerful and moving – like stepping inside the pages of the fairy tale, or falling into a dark dream.

We gave chase. Soon we caught up with Ruby (Becky Baker), who was as beguiling, charming and feisty as you could possibly hope for, I felt I had met the ‘real’ Red Riding Hood, so authentically did she personify her character. She expertly spun clues into stories, led and held the group seamlessly.

The story moved on a pace, passing from Ruby to the Huntsman (Alexander Warn), and back, from scene to scene and one clue to the next – via encounters with Alice (Becca Savory), and occasional brushes with packs of wolves, the story drew us on.

The Hunters, Gatherers and cast met at the top of Stanmer Park, looking down over the lights of Brighton, ‘Our Village’, declared the Duke. It was here amid cups of tea and clue-sharing conversations with fellow seekers that the Duke, questioned about his incriminating diary turned very nasty, and delivered a magnificent ‘shut up’ snarl. We were off again.

My enthusiasm began to wane a little in the second half, I no longer believed that I, or anyone, would be eaten, or even dragged off and mauled – not even a Guide. We’d encountered the headlamp-eyed wolf head-on and his mention now instilled laugher not fear. My clue-seeking sharp eyes wondered why the Duke wore incongruous modern trainers when Ruby’s shoes were so in keeping with the aesthetic of the piece, why Granny’s voice had come from a blood-splattered fake bird box, and why the backpack speakers were covered in attention-seeking hessian when the lights and cameras were left in their purely functional invisibility. And the decision to have the Nun/Guides in semi-costume seemed a strange one.

Barring that, the costumes and design details were exquisite: Ruby’s wolf fur bag and leather holstered hunter’s knife, the beautiful bundles of herbs along the path, and the fairy-lit sticks from Grandma’s house.

Burn the Curtain expertly delivered this beautifully crafted theatre adventure, but whilst there is a strong body of work drawn on – not only Angela Carter’s Company of Wolves but also The Bloody Chamber, with references to The Werewolf, Wolf-Alice, and Peter and the Wolf in the mix – it lacks a deeper sense of twisting menace, and the darker sexual themes of Carter’s stories. But perhaps this was a necessary compromise to deliver a performance for the whole family? (It was advertised as suitable for age 8+.)

Amongst other things Burn the Curtain aim to encourage: intergenerational play, engagement with the great outdoors, enjoyment of theatre and performance, active participation in theatre and performance at a number of different levels, and the combination of crafts, theatre and physical activity – so although I did stray from the path and the wolves didn’t eat me up, they did deliver on those other, perhaps more important promises.

All is forgiven in the grand finale which delivers spectacle and tension, disrupting audience/ performer roles, and giving the audience the power to decide the ending.